Thursday 23 September 2010

Way Down South

A response to
Bill Orcutt's
Way Down South
'Track 4'

Way Down South 4 by brokenloop

Bill Orcutt's playing has got me tremendously pleased to be alive the past few months, I thought I'd devote some time to talking about him and his work. I'm keen to adopt some aspects of his approach to poetic practice - this might be a first stab at thinking about which particular elements interest me.

As former guitarist for hardcore band Harry Pussy, Bill Orcutt's career has been one largely outside of any mainstream concern. However, his resurgence as a solo performer has been an exciting development in the past few years. Now devoting himself exclusively to playing acoustic guitar, his debut record A New Way to Pay Old Debts was a highlight of 2009. The music was largely based around a series of improvised vignettes, and Orcutt's unique style of playing defies easy categorisation. Within the errant shreds of recognisable notation and tonal arrangements there is something thoroughly modernist -- something that implies a desire to de-construct, to refine and, ultimately, destroy. There are numerous parallels drawn by reviewers to early blues music, modern guitar improvisation, and hardcore noise; Orcutt's style is one of suggestion, but in doing so it still remains distinct from its source.

Way Down South
is a live recording released this month by Orcutt's own record company Palilalia. Track 4 is the penultimate improvisation on the record, and in my mind it forms one of the best examples of Orcutt's playing. It also represents a new route in the aesthetic of “unbecoming” -- with its recalling of blues riffs and erratic tempo the improvisation achieves an interplay between violent expression and ethereal realisation. At its inception the piece's scale runs are suggestive of Far Eastern music, with Orcutt's voice forming a droning counter-point. The playing is far from fluent, instead a range of spasmodic modes and modules that fail to develop any form of pacing. The tempo is akin to the epileptic flicker of a bird wing, and on several occasions the structure delineates into complete chaos. This all takes place in the first twelve seconds of the piece, serving to set out a blueprint to Orcutt's technique. It repeats for fifty-three seconds before it offers the first respite of quiet. On resumption it can only sustain itself for a few seconds; Orcutt punches a resounding exclamation as the structure fails to hold, he allows it to collapse.

This process of construction and deconstruction forms a constant that Orcutt returns to throughout the improvisation. He veers between recognisable motifs and an urgent obscurity of noise, discord brought to abrupt halts, as one practising technical exercises that fail to gain momentum. This is Orcutt's deception. The whole piece is about momentum – a momentum quantified by its refusal to cohere. The most significant moment is approximately two minutes in, when the guitar suddenly sounds out a bluesy descending progression of notes. This listener is thrown into a position of nostalgia, a moment of recall that encapsulates folk traditions. It stands in contrast to all the current talk of hauntology's presence in music by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds; this tiny incident of recognition is not just a remembrance, it's a primal formation of Orcutt's methodology, an aural equivalent to Eliot's shored fragments.

What happens next is an invigoratingly discordant repetition, with Orcutt moving between two or three notes, bending them to create a compact and claustrophobic figure. A bass note is struck again and again in exclamation, highlighting the repetition as it does. The listener prepares themselves for the inevitable collapse that has governed the past few minutes, but in fact something else occurs -- Orcutt repeats the motif until it becomes a staccato fugue state, a drawing in of boundaries. Where most improvisation moves towards transcendence as a conclusive terminus, Orcutt seems to be bringing his listeners to a null point, an implication that nothing lies beyond those few arrayed notes. The tempo increases and as it does Orcutt emits a high snarl or whine. It's his first vocal interjection since the beginning of the track, and it is in distinct contrast to the devotional moan of earlier. What is Orcutt suggesting? Frustration? Violence? Perhaps a plea for relief? The ambiguity of his eruption hangs there as the piece falls apart into a few expansive runs across the fret board. It feels like legs stretched in response to sudden release, but in comparison to moments earlier it is spectral, barely a whisper. Orcutt has arrived at his null state and the end point of his exercise.


  1. Excellent piece of music, sir! MY KINDA MUSIC! Pretty neat piece of writing, too! Excellent, my friend!

  2. My primary thought is how many times can Bill demonstrate this feat of speed and agility?
    My sense is that he is playing only for himself, which is fine.
    Yet after a while it begins to remind me of a sword swallowing trick or someone juggling flaming guitars. I enjoy listening and watching, but lately I have been wondering where it is going!? It's hard to tell if he is fucking up! I guess a good question is How can He Fuck it up?

  3. Hi Kevin

    Interesting point - I'm not sure how well you know Orcutt's earlier work, so forgive me if I assume that you aren't that familiar with it. His playing with Harry Pussy was less about speed and agility, more about delivering short expressive movements - it forms a lot of the blueprint for what he is doing here. It's meant to be largely instinctive, and consequently I don't feel it's possible to apply a notion of "fucking up" so to speak.

    Perhaps the intention is for the piece to occupy a position of complete freedom, away from the restrictive concerns of playing "the right notes". In one respect this is very much about playing for one's self; however, in doing so it can also become a point of interest for the rest of us.

    To address the question of how many times can he demonstrate such a feat - well, it's enough for me that he did it once. Still, I think your questions are very valid ones, and I'd be keen to hear any further thoughts you may have.


  4. Hi Andy:
    Thanks for the response.
    I did think about my comments again today and I have been vacillating quite a bit.
    Don't get me wrong, I fully appreciate these recent recordings and the video clips cropping up on line.
    What I find interesting is that when you are creating a new vocabulary and language, no one can correct the way in which you speak, OR understand what you are saying. It's like the secret language of twins. Bill and his guitar are like twins channeling some intense fucked up it's best moments it sounds like his guitar is a vacuum cleaner caught in a bee hive. It builds up like a house of cards and then collapses.
    Living in Miami, I've seen Harry Pussy more times than I can remember. I like your remark about the music occupying a position of complete freedom. Yet it also seems as if it is occupying a position of total oppression fighting to break free.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Well, I was wrong to assume you weren't familiar with his early stuff - I'm very jealous, I have to say!

    In response to your thoughts on new vocabulary, this is part of what I find so appealing. I've approached his work from the perspective of how it could be applied to poetics - something which I have a particular vested interest in, being a writer myself.

    I feel there is a strong case to be made regarding the oppressive nature of established language (musical or otherwise), coming as it often does from an 'official' position within our culture. The artist exploring expression outside the recognised mode is required to take an ambiguous approach; one that, as you stated, “no one can correct”. Certainly this creates a conspiracy, or language of the twins, between the performer and his work , but that seems to to be a precondition of the process. In comparison to some-one like Sun Ra, Orcutt is relatively conservative – he's not wrapped in tin-foil for starters.

    To link this back to poetics - there is always a degree of anxiety for the audience/reader, a questioning of how the work can be validated, coming as it does from something outside of immediately recognisable tropes or systems of interpretation. However, I think this is part of what makes Orcutt appealing. It challenges an audience to adopt a new set of tools for critical response, and suggests something outside of the accepted paths. It puts me in mind of a Time review of John Ashbery's poems: “[They] do not evade the real: they deny it the power to prevent other realities from being conceived.”

    Anyway, that is a lot of rambling from me. Thank you for the invigorating response, it's good because it encourages me to clarify and refine a number of sporadic thoughts into something more solid...


  6. I am interested in ideas having to do with dissonance and cacophony, harmony and melody.

    Not boasting but I've also seen Sun Ra more times than I can remember and Bill is definitely no Sun Ra! even if he wore a Silver cape and sequined beanie. There are decades of Sun Ra's music to refer to as well.
    The recordings of the early 1950s have little to do with the chaos of the mid 1970s.

    I keep reading that American Blues guitarists are a strong influence on his recent playing, but for me it does not sound apparent. I keep thinking that the recent recordings have more in common with learning and speaking Klingon
    than with the music from the American Delta.

    I imagine if a Klingon Battlecruiser had a lounge Bill's guitar playing would sound perfectly at home!